By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 12 -- Nine minutes into Wednesday's World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium, the U.S. men's national soccer team accomplished the impossible. For a few brief seconds, it had silenced 105,000 spectators.
Charlie Davies had done the honors with a neat finish to the far corner of the net, providing the Americans with their first lead in 10 visits to this gargantuan arena.
But by the end of another devilish visit, the Mexican supporters were anything but mute. El Tri, as their national squad is known, drew even 10 minutes after Davies's goal with a breathtaking smash and, amid a furious push in the late stages, received a goal by reserve Miguel Sabah in the 82nd minute to forge a 2-1 victory.
"It's a tight game and a fair score," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said. "To have so many guys work so hard and give up a late goal, the feeling inside is one of great disappointment."
The Americans fell to 0-9-1 at Azteca and 0-23-1 all-time in Mexico. Of greater concern, their margin over Mexico in the six-team standings for a berth in the 2010 World Cup was trimmed to a point and further muddled the race for three automatic berths with four games remaining.
The United States is 3-2-1 (10 points) while Mexico is 3-3-0 (nine). Regardless of Wednesday's late matches in the region, Costa Rica will stay in first place.
"I said this week I didn't want people to get carried away," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "This wasn't a live-or-die game for us; it was for them. Now it puts us in a little more difficult position . . . but we still feel that if we win these two games [Sept. 5 vs. El Salvador and four days later at Trinidad and Tobago], we will qualify."
Four hours before kickoff, the streets around the massive venue in this southern borough of the city were cluttered with fans, vendors and security officers. Mexico City is notorious for sooty air, which at 7,300 feet altitude, makes a brisk walk laborious for visitors. Think about what it's like to play 90 minutes of soccer. But the air quality didn't seem bad and the temperature was in the upper 70s.
If the U.S. players were in need of added inspiration, they got it during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" when the music was rudely drowned out by the steady honking of plastic horns.
Mexico -- which has lost a qualifier at Azteca just once -- was quick and assertive at the opening whistle. Giovani Dos Santos weaved between U.S. players and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, a rambunctious veteran who plies his trade for Chicago in MLS, served as the hub of the attack.
The Americans absorbed the early pressure, unfazed by the environment or the opponent. Donovan was influential, shifting from flank to flank and moving centrally to collect the ball.
In the ninth minute, with possession in the center circle, he turned on Gerrardo Torrado and delivered a through ball past three defenders. Davies had timed his run perfectly and met the ball in stride for a clear run at goal. With a Mexican defender closing quickly and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa drifting off his line to diminish the shooting angle, Davies calmly curled a low, 15-yard shot into the far right corner for his fourth international goal in 14 appearances.
Azteca fell silent as Davies and teammates rejoiced. The crowd's disbelief and Mexico's deficit, however, didn't last long.
El Tri's possession and ball movement strained the Americans and forced them to drop dangerously deeper in their own end. In the 19th minute, the equalizer arrived in spectacular fashion. Blanco poked the ball to Israel Castro, who had the time to launch a 25-yard shot that streaked out of the leaping Tim Howard's reach, nicked the underside of the crossbar and settled into the net. Donovan called it "an absolute dream goal."
Azteca was quiet no more.
El Tri's momentum continued. The Americans were left to chase shadows as Mexico grasped possession and didn't let go. Mexico Coach Javier Aguirre made his first change by adding Arsenal's Carlos Vela and pulling Blanco, who left to a loud ovation. Bradley countered moments later by replacing Ricardo Clark and quiet Brian Ching with midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden.
The flow of the match didn't change, however. Howard was called upon to make a superb reflex save on Dos Santos. Possession became a delicacy for the Americans, who turned to a long-ball strategy to free the fleet-footed Davies. On the rare occasions they had chances to counter, Davies didn't see Donovan rushing the left wing and Donovan failed to connect after moving into dangerous position atop the penalty area.
In the 71st minute, Holden swung a gorgeous cross that sailed just over Davies's head, and a minute later, Davies was ruled offside after running onto Michael Bradley's through ball.
The Americans weren't thrilled with Panamanian referee Roberto Moreno.
"It seems like when we come to a place like this, the most intimidated person in the stadium is the referee," Howard said. "The bar was probably tilted in their favor, and that's unfortunate because it was a hard-fought game. We went in hard, they went in hard, and for some reason, we keep coming out with the foul."
The breaking point came in the flow of play, however. Just three minutes after Sabah entered, Efrain Juarez beat Donovan to the end line. Jay DeMerit joined the cause, but the ball caromed out to Sabah for an eight-yard finish over Howard, setting off wild celebrations among the tense spectators.
"To be a great team, you have to learn how to control the lead and unfortunately we were unable to do that," Davies said. "We have a long way to go before the World Cup. I'm pretty hopeful we will be able to correct our mistakes."